Playing pinball with a new Lincoln

It is often said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. It seems to me that is not so much a definition of insanity as it is a description of humanity.

As a local church pastor, I’ve seen it more times than I can count, and done it more times than I care to admit. I’ve seen married couples have the same argument over and over, make the same points (only louder), and expect it to turn out differently than it did last time.

Seeing addicts go through a repeating cycle of choices and consequences feels like “déjà vu all over again.” They end up slogging through the same relational and occupational morass they’ve been caught in countless times before. The people that love them then go through the steps of a ritual dance they know by heart. It’s a dance of rescue, then anger, then alienation. But nothing ever changes.

Young couples who were sacrificed on the altar of the American Dream by parents they’ve never forgiven start worshiping at the same altar in their twenties and sacrificing their own children by their thirties. Their children don’t forgive them either, but just give them twenty years and they’ll be bowing at that same altar, their children bound for sacrifice.

The Apostle Paul, one of history’s most influential people, saw this kind of repetitive failure in others and in himself. He wrote, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”

I was once in a fishing camp in northwestern Ontario, lying on my bed reading, late at night, when I heard a loud thud. I paused for a moment, then went on reading. Perhaps thirty seconds later I heard another loud thud. I got up and peered out the window.

In the darkness I could make out a black Lincoln. Its driver had hit one tree with his front bumper, then backed into a stump. I watched as he pulled forward and hit the same tree he’d hit before, then backed again into the same stump. It looked like he was playing pinball with a new Lincoln.

I threw some clothes on and went out to help. He was standing next to his car, surveying the territory, wondering (in his very inebriated state) why the trees were attacking him. I asked where his cabin was (it was nowhere near) and offered to drive him to it. When he saw me the next day at the lodge, he looked at me doubtfully and said, “Are you the guy…?”

Sometimes when I see people now, doing the same thing over and over and yet expecting a different result, I feel like I’m watching my hapless friend in the Lincoln. He was doing the best he could in his impaired condition, but his best was never going to get him where he wanted to go. He needed help from the outside.

Christian teaching says the same about all of us. We are impaired by sin and, try as we may, we cannot reach our destination, which is a life of mutual love with God and people. We’ll never get there, doing what we’re doing, but we keep doing it anyway. We get back in our Lincoln and drive smack-dab into the same old tree. We need help from the outside.

The biblical writers operate from the assumption that humanity is stuck and cannot get free. “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil.” We’ve fallen and can’t get up. We’re stuck and can’t get out.

This discouraging analysis is thoroughly, but not comprehensively, biblical. There is, thankfully, more to the story. The good news is that God does not expect us to pick ourselves up by our bootstraps, nor is he content to watch us run endlessly into the same obstacles. The Bible tells us that help from the outside has arrived in the person of Jesus. It is, however, still up to us whether we’ll let him in, give him the keys, and allow him to lead us where we need to go.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 11/7/2015

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